By Kevin McGeever
When the Florida vacation destination is Orlando, the Theme Park Capital of the World, some tunnel vision can be excused.
From Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina, this road trip south on I-95 and west on I-4 should take no more than nine hours of drive time. After crossing the state line and stopping at the Official Florida Welcome Center for a stretch of the legs and a complimentary orange juice, you could be entering the Magic Kingdom before dinner.
But if you think about it, what’s the rush? Allow me to explain.
If you add a day or two at the front and/or back end of this driving vacation, you could:
- walk on Boneyard Beach in Jacksonville;
- stroll the cobblestones of St. George Street in St. Augustine’s colonial quarter;
- risk a golf ball (or three or four) on the 17th-hole island green at TPC Sawgrass;
- drive your car on the sands of Daytona Beach;
- surf at Cocoa Beach, hometown of 11-time world champion Kelly Slater;
- and have your fortune revealed in Cassadaga, arguably the most spiritual town in Florida.
What I’m saying is, there are 180 miles to drive from the Florida border to Disney World. There are at least a thousand things to do.
There are scenic highways …
Florida has officially identified 26 drives because of their pleasant pace and natural blessings -- from ocean views to oak canopies.
On your route to Orlando, the A1A Ocean Islands Trail hugs the northeast Atlantic coast, crossing saltwater marsh and filling your senses with seabirds and sea breeze. The ocean, vistas of rivers and creeks and barrier island dunes and beach, and historic buildings and museums are within reach of the 30-mile Ormond Scenic Loop. Cyclists revere the rolling hills of the Green Mountain Scenic Byway.
Set aside an hour or two, ease off the gas, and set your internal gauge to “vacation.”
There are beaches …
Florida has 800 miles of them in all. From Amelia Island to Daytona Beach, you have your pick among 120 miles of Atlantic oceanfront.
Fernandina in Florida’s northeast corner is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Flagler Beach has sand the color of cinnamon and a locally-owned vibe that exudes a warm welcome.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is 6,000 years in the making, the home of the native Americans who were the original Floridians, and the site of a culture clash that birthed a New World. In the same preserve, American Beach was once a safe haven for African-Americans forced to deal with Jim Crow Florida.
There are freshwater springs ...
If the game were word association and I said “Florida,” the reflex responses would be theme parks and beaches and sunshine, and then perhaps Everglades and the Keys, and maybe golf and seafood, or manatees and dolphins.
The savvy traveler who has done her research (or been here before) knows that the state’s 700 freshwater springs are a Florida-exclusive baptism for the senses. Clear as glass and 72 degrees year-round. Part exhilaration, part meditation. Swim, snorkel, dive, float.
Remember some of these names: Juniper, Alexander, Silver, Rock, DeLeon. They are the real fountains of youth.
There are state and national parks and forests and wildlife refuges ...
Jacksonville, you may be surprised to know, is the largest city in square miles in the contiguous United States, and has 400-plus parks and 1,100 miles of navigable waterways.
South of Jax, Guana Tolomato Matanzas Estuarine Research Reserve protects almost 77,000 acres of coastal biodiversity. One of 29 such reserves in the United States, GTM reports a species list of at least 44 mammals, 358 birds, 41 reptiles, 21 amphibians, 303 fish and 580 plants. The research reserve contains habitats essential to 48 protected animals and eight protected plants.
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, as the name telegraphs, has formal gardens shaded by an oak hammock. The park also has unique water access -- the Matanzas River to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The coquina rock shoreline is ideal for tidal pool exploration.
There are cities ...
Jacksonville, which we already have celebrated for its natural attractions, also has inviting neighborhoods such as Riverside, Five Points and Downtown that are destinations for art walks, fine dining, and the Jax Ale Trail.
St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, owes 400-plus years of history to the native Timucuan, European colonists, visionary industrialists, and African-American Civil Rights heroes. Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States, is the 300-year-old centerpiece of the colonial downtown. Henry Flagler, the father of Florida tourism, put down roots here in 1885 with the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the first piece of the East Coast Railway that would lead to the birth of Miami. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young received safe haven in the Lincolnville neighborhood as they and other black Americans risked their lives to advance the just cause of equal rights.
Daytona Beach is best known for the eponymous Speedway, a shrine of stock-car racing and the home of Speedweeks and the annual Daytona 500. No less significant is the city island ballpark where Jackie Robinson first integrated professional baseball in 1946. The ballpark now bears Jackie’s name and a museum is a memorable tour.
Cape Canaveral is the storied launchpad for manned space flight -- Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle program, and now SpaceX. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, you can gawk at the rocket garden and the shuttle Atlantis, and meet an astronaut.
In DeLand, where the architecture evokes stately New England, two of the area’s main attractions bear the name of America’s iconic hatmaker. Stetson University, founded in 1876, is Florida’s oldest private college. Stetson Mansion, the hatmaker’s Victorian home, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
So take your time on the drive to and from Orlando. You can create your own travel itinerary with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool.
WELCOME TO ORLANDO
Welcome to the best parts of your childhood -- past, present, and future. If you feel an urge to cackle, gasp, hoot in delight, and/or burst forth in song, go ahead. You’re not alone.
The attractions of Orlando and Kissimmee have that kind of effect on visitors, be they first-timers or old-timers.
At Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and LEGOLAND, for starters, there are 15 separate parks with dares that demand derring-do: Infinity Falls and the Kraken, Galaxy’s Edge and the Millennium Falcon, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Veteran thrill-seekers also endorse attractions such as Orlando Watersports Park and Fun Spot America.
Entertainment districts such as Disney Springs and International Drive unite theme park adrenalin with retail therapy.
In an international destination such as Orlando, there are James Beard-nominated chefs and abundant food choices. Established African-American, Hispanic, and Vietnamese neighborhoods accentuate the foodie’s experience.
Neighborhoods have forged their own brands through their achievements as retailers and artists. In Orlando, some of those districts are SoDo, Audubon Park, Thornton Park, and Little Vietnam. In the wider metro area, go the extra mile to Winter Park and Winter Garden, and Mount Dora and Maitland.
Live performances are daily opportunities.
Orlando City Soccer and Orlando Magic basketball games typically cover 60 nights a year. Annual weekends bring fans to the National Football League’s Pro Bowl, multiple college football bowl games, and the PGA’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Tournament.
The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts stages 300 productions a year -- from concerts to comedy, ballet to Broadway. Museums and gallery spaces include the Mennello, the Hosmer Morse, and the Wells’Built. In February, the annual Zora! Festival celebrates Eatonville and the life and works of the celebrated anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God).
There is plenty to do in Orlando -- and along the way. Enjoy the ride.
Distance from Raleigh-Durham to Orlando: approximately 600 miles (966 kilometers)
Driving time: 8-9 hours.
Best route(s): I-95 south to I-4 west.
Fuel costs: use this calculator.
Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare.
Rest areas: Interstate 95.
Alternative transportation: Greyhound. Travel time 13 hours.
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